The ‘Always Sunny’ Team Takes on Toxic Masculinity in Gaming
The new Apple TV+ series “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” explores the world of gaming through the eyes of a megalomaniacal CEO (Rob McElhenney) and his team of video-game workers.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a likable and frequently sharp look at a milieu—the video game industry—about which it knows quite a lot. What it’s not, unfortunately, is consistently funny.
Given that Apple TV+’s latest series (premiering Feb. 7) is from the masterminds of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that’s a somewhat deflating revelation. Nonetheless, with HBO’s Silicon Valley having just come to an end, high-profile insider peeks at tech environments are relatively sparse right now. And if it doesn’t generate much outright laughter, Mythic Quest’s story about a gaming firm run by a lunatic and staffed by outlandish talent remains an agreeable diversion that gets by on its endearing personalities—and, also, its dedication to playfully critiquing a geeky world marked by greed, sexism, intolerance, and inanity.
Created by Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, Mythic Quest concerns the development studio behind Mythic Quest, the world’s most popular massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), and the brainchild of Ian Grimm (McElhenney), a pretentious bushy-bearded buffoon who pronounces his name “Eye-an.” Ian is a cartoon megalomaniac, ruling over his techie fiefdom from a grand office that looks down on his employees, and whose outer wall is painted with a giant armored-warrior mural that matches the size of his ego. Ian isn’t good at programming, marketing, sales or focusing on any given task at hand. Yet as creative director, he does have a gift for invention, and at the start of the series, he’s viewed as a veritable industry god while prepping for the imminent launch of his MMORPG’s highly-anticipated expansion, “Raven’s Banquet.”
Ian is the wacko axis around which Mythic Quest revolves the rest of its players, all of whom are defined in clear, broad brushstrokes. Executive producer David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby, who played Matthew “Rickety Cricket” Mara on It’s Always Sunny) is a namby-pamby faux-leader who whines and frets about his boss’ uncontrollable behavior and his own lack of authority. Head of monetization Brad (Community’s Danny Pudi) is a cutthroat jerk who only cares about milking the game for profit. Writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) is a drunken has-been sci-fi author obsessed with the written word, especially when it contributes to someone’s “backstory.” And lead engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) is the gifted and perpetually frustrated coder behind the company’s moneymaker, and thus the veritable heart and soul of the series. Alongside two game testers—Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), the former secretly in love with the latter—they’re a motley crew who find themselves in a constant state of intertwined conflict.
Best of all is Jo (Jessie Ennis), a young woman who’s hired to serve as David’s assistant, but immediately becomes infatuated with Ian, drawn as she is to macho power. Jo is the cast’s unassuming loose-cannon, a Midwestern conservative who alternates between sneering at her liberal compatriots, screaming hostile madness at those opposed to Ian, and making inappropriate suggestions that mark her as a borderline sociopath. Whether sending adversaries suicide-suggestion memes or switching allegiances depending on her coworkers’ level of manliness, she’s the show’s wild card, and thus a welcome jolt of crazy.
As you might imagine, Raven’s Banquet doesn’t make it to market without some hiccups, and those dramatic obstacles touch on a variety of hot-button gaming topics. The dearth of lead female voices in the industry (and the toxic masculinity that maintains that status quo), the preponderance of Nazis in the online realm, the incessant micro-transactions of modern titles, the pay-for-play nature of gaming journalism, and the tension between money and artistic integrity all prove natural subjects, and are addressed with unforced perceptiveness. There’s a sense throughout that McElhenney, Day and Ganz get gaming culture on a fundamental level, thanks to plots that involve Brad trying to insert a modern casino into an enchanted forest, a protracted battle against an influential teenage YouTube streamer named Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig), and a masked Mythic Quest character whose secret identity has been heavily hyped despite the fact that no one has a plan for revealing his (or her) identity.
Awareness doesn’t always translate into amusement, however, and Mythic Quest often plays like a mild lark uninterested in pushing itself into truly gonzo territory. Once its protagonists’ quirks and hang-ups have been firmly established, the series is able to play off of those attributes to wittier ends. Yet even so, none of its central figures are distinctive enough to stand out from any number of like-minded comedy efforts. In short, it feels as if we’ve seen these stock types before. Though its stars are clearly game—and their characters are ripe for mockery, including juvenile and crass Pootie Shoe—they’re rarely given an opportunity to let loose, save for the occasional unexpected outburst from Jo, who turns out to be the only participant with the potential to surprise.
In the middle of its nine-episode debut season, Mythic Quest takes a time-out from its primary narrative to recount the years-earlier saga of two 1990s game developers (Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti) who meet-cute at a retailer, hit it big with an unconventional game, and then crash and burn—personally and professionally—after bastardizing their creation for increased sales, Hollywood spin-offs, and toy tie-ins. It’s a sweet and heartfelt interlude about the perilousness of success, and love, in the face of alluring wealth and power. And its cautionary-tale message about prizing partners, and who you are, above baser interests and impulses hovers over the remainder of the season, only dovetailing with the main storyline at the very end of the finale.
It’s a daring gambit for a show that generally feels comfortable staying in its lane, and the fact that it doesn’t factor more heavily into the action proper feels not only awkward but wrongheaded. In their lone installment, the charmingly paired Johnson and Milioti elicit more empathy, and heartfelt and humorous interest in the gaming world, than anything else presented here, leaving one with the impression that Mythic Quest has opted to tell the wrong one of its own stories.